Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are key to successful businesses, and this is now a fact that organisations are paying increased emphasis to. While we are on the topic of D&I, there is nothing more inspirational than talking to a woman leader march ahead while also encouraging other women to take a similar route. In this edition of Leading Lady Series, Jacqui Guichelaar, SVP and Group Chief Information Officer, Cisco speaks to Dataquest about her journey in the tech industry, the importance of encouraging a diverse and positive work environment for employees and much more.
DQ: As Cisco’s Group CIO, you represent a small section of women in senior leadership positions, especially technical roles. What has your journey been like in the tech industry? What more needs to be done to ensure greater representation of women in this space and in leadership capacities?
Jacqui Guichelaar: I’ve spent time in several industries, but technology has always been the common theme. I’ve always loved its potential to change the world for the better. It’s a journey that has taken me around the world. I started in IT at 17 years of age, joined IBM at 21, and worked at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, New York, and London. I worked at Thomson Reuters in London and then moved to where I am now, in California, with Cisco. Having that global and regional perspective has been incredibly valuable. It helps you to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and to appreciate the diversity of thought.
In most of my roles, I was one of very few women on my team. Fortunately, I was ambitious to learn and willing to challenge the status quo. I believe we all need to make sure we’re embedding inclusion and diversity into everything we do. If you hold a position of power in a company, notice those not at the table or not having their voices heard and make a place for them.
One of the reasons I am so proud to work at Cisco is its dedication to powering an inclusive future for all. You can see it in the diverse hiring panels that are used when interviewing candidates. You can see it as senior leaders focus on proximity, getting close to people in their organization who are different from them to understand their challenges and opportunities. You can see it in Cisco’s collaboration solutions that make sure everyone in a meeting has an equal opportunity and voice.
DQ: The past 18 months have been unprecedented on several fronts. But IT teams found themselves at the eye of the storm to enable a new way of working and doing business overnight. What was your experience in powering these tectonic shifts for Cisco’s 75,000-strong workforce and your customers, partners, and communities that were relying on Cisco’s tech to keep them productive?
Jacqui Guichelaar: When the pandemic began, I think my reaction was the same as most CIOs trying to figure things out – I had to take a moment. We had an excellent business continuity strategy in place. Still, like everyone else, our focus had been on overcoming the failure of one building or one site, not the entire world.
We were lucky at Cisco as we are power users of collaboration technology, with a great network and robust security, but this was still a challenge. We went from 25,000 people working from home to 140,000 in 96 countries and nearly 500 offices. Usually, that would have been an ambitious one-year project, and we did it in 10 days. We had to successfully balance what our technologies could do – their capabilities and capacities – with security considerations and the employee experience. I’m incredibly proud of what Cisco IT accomplished.
We were also fortunate that the new ways of work and doing business that you mention were already largely in place or at least underway for us. We were already transforming our infrastructure to accommodate multi-cloud environments, we were already implementing automation in critical areas, and we had a lot of experience enabling a distributed workforce.
DQ: Specifically in India, what kind of challenges did your teams encounter when the pandemic first hit? What were the learnings, and was the team better prepared to meet the roadblocks posed by the second wave earlier this year?
Jacqui Guichelaar: Even before the pandemic, Cisco IT supported our employees with flexible working options like working from home, so it was not new to us. What changed was the scale of some of our services like VPN, Endpoint Security, etc. In India, we had our customer-facing TAC engineers governed by the OSP guidelines, and moving them to work from home had its own challenges. Based on DoT guidelines, we not only built the automation within 48 hours but also shared the code with more than 500 customers with the help of NASSCOM and our Sales leadership teams.
The second wave for us was more focused on our employees and the well-being of their families. We used the power of technology, like chatbots, to help our employees to get the most accurate information or enable on-campus vaccination drives. The second wave also made us re-look at our business continuity plans more closely and continue to adjust as we move.
DQ: Cisco is moving permanently to a hybrid work model. What sort of impact do you think this will have on workplace equality, productivity, and innovation? What opportunities do you think will be created for women if more companies switch to hybrid work, and what are the challenges?
Jacqui Guichelaar: It’s certainly easier for there to be a level playing field when everyone is in the office or remote. With hybrid work, you need to make sure everyone still has a seat at the table. I’m confident in our ability to make it easy for people, wherever they are, to engage fully.
It comes down to three elements. The first is technology, having the tools to be productive and collaborative, and that’s Cisco’s bread and butter. The second is security, ensuring the enterprise is secure whether it’s the corporate office or the home office. We’ve adopted a Zero Trust strategy, continuously validating the user and device at every application access attempt with limited or no passwords. This helps equalize the user experience – it’s the same for both cloud and on-prem applications.
The third and most critical is culture and building an inclusive workplace. It’s about continuously looking at ways to improve the environment and create a positive experience for all employees. As I mentioned before, that’s central to who Cisco is.
DQ: In terms of challenges, the pandemic has been particularly hard on women. Income loss, unpaid care, and domestic work have increased drastically for women, especially in developing countries like India. What role can technology play in addressing some of these issues?
Jacqui Guichelaar: We’ve already seen during the past 18 months the tremendous difference that technology has made in keeping people connected and engaged who otherwise would not be. I believe we’re moving into a world of borderless talent, where it’s not about where people are, just whether they can do the job. Technology opens up the marketplace, allowing us to better connect people in developing countries or rural areas with job opportunities. It’s another way of driving an inclusive future for all.
DQ: What is your advice for young girls looking to pursue a career in STEM and for women in tech looking to take on more advanced positions? What is the responsibility of leaders in bridging the existing gaps?
Jacqui Guichelaar: My main advice is to go for it. Be willing to take risks. Take charge of your own development. Surround yourself with people who know more than you and learn as much as you can. Being eager to learn and willing to challenge how things are can take you far. Leaders should absolutely do what they can to lift others. I’m sure almost every leader had someone show up for them when they were just starting. Sponsor women who are early in their career or returning to the workplace. And work to get women into leadership positions because young women cannot be it if they cannot see it.